Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 21, 2023 11:48 pm 
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The family game

The Iron Claw is rather an ordeal to watch. But its look, its overall concept, and its level of acting are quite special. For this reason it's an awards season player, named one of the top 10 films of 2023 by the National Board of Review. This movie is more than a family bio-pic. Your patience and a strong stomach will be required, but you ought to watch it. This "dour but powerful drama" is an obvious standout in the ensemble category.

Sean Durkin is known for directing the 2011 Martha Marcy May Marlene. That was a film that grew out of his interest in cults, as his second film, the 2020 The Nest, showed his penchant for problematic families. He said then in an interview, "I’ll never be able to do something that I don’t give every ounce of myself to." And so we get The Iron Claw, based on the famous Texas professional wrestling dynasty, the Von Erichs. It is a cult, and a doomed one, known for "the Von Erich curse." (Durkin also said in that interview "I've had some really shitty luck." ) The Iron Claw is an all-in operation to which Durkin has given every ounce, and about a family that does likewise, or else incurs the wrath of the dominant head of the family, Fritz Von Erich, real name Jack Barton Adkisson Sr. (Played in the flim by Holt McCallany.)

The training, the accoutrements of professional wrestling required total dedication of the Von Erich family, and the full dedication of the filmmakers has been given needed to reproduce this world. To play the lead, Kevin Von Erich, Zac Efron required a makeover that's been compared to De Niro's for Raging Bull. His body is bristling with muscles. Under the head of shaggy seventies-early eighties hair is the face of an aging innocent. It's through his sweet and guileless baby blue eyes that the events of the film are filtered.

There is a paradox in this world; there are many paradoxes. The Von Erich boys, Kevin especially, are highly trined athletes, but what they're doing isn't sport, but a show, and a crude and silly one. It's all really fake, and it looks fake too. The leaps through the air and landing on each other are choreographed. But they're nonetheless dangerous. And of course they have a gang of fans. This is a joke that is taken very seriously. And they loved it in Japan, home of Sumo and kabuki.

Fritz is a severe patriarch. He is conservative, and the family all go to church on Sundays. It's his move, "the iron claw," a controlling gesture of going for the face of his opponent. The sons' normal response to Fritz's commands, no matter how hard or sweeping, is never anything but "Yes, Sir." He is not questioned. Everything is subservient to the family and to the wrestling business. Another paradox is that despite the inherent fakeness of the action, the various titles and belts that are rewarded aren't easy to win, and apparently can't be bought.

Though The Iron Claw follows the life of the Von Erich family closely and their main life events intensely (with some significant changes; one family member, Chris Von Erich, was totally edited out), one can feel Durkin hovering above everything, seeing this world as a cult and their life, despite the fame and the accomplishments, as terribly wrong. It is this sense of ironic distance that makes the movie interesting and not just routine. At one point Kevin examines the accounts and, in charge of the company now, wanting to sell it, tells his father frankly that it's in debt; it's a losing proposition. Their world is doomed. Yet the dynasty goes on, with even female family members (see Wikipedia) now participating in the pro wrestling game.

A final paradox, which will occur to many viewers, is that despite its tedious and absurd eighties quality, this story unmistakably follows the classic lineaments of Greek tragedy. And yet - (though in fact maybe Greek tragedies really ended this way in real life too), there's happy postscript: a big busy final closing-credits photograph of the real family as it is today shows that, despite the way the generation we've been following was decimated by terrible accident, bad luck, and self-harm, there are, in the present day, two or three dozen current Adkisson/Von Erich family members who could line up in the Texas sunshine for a happy, proud photo. Tragedy did not sap their strength. They've flourished, after all.

The images of The Iron Claw are simple, in-your-face, and bright-colored, a certain seventies look. The other brothers are good. My favorites are David (Harris Dickinson), a loosely-slung, humorous blond guy who's lured into the ring as if by accideent. Kerry ("The Bear’s" Jeremy Allen White) is a quiet, almost mousy Olympic discus aspriant whose future is ruined by Jimmy Carter's withdrawing the US from the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan - we hear and see the TV speech. Fritz commands him to enter wrestling. He flies high, then falls far, as does David. The youngest is Mike (promising Australian newcomer Stanley Simons), who isn't really athletic, though he's tall. He wants to play and sing in a rock band. That will change, though the rebranding is a painful transformation that will tear him up.

The overriding theme is how a dominant leader can crush the human spirit. Owen Gleiberman, in Variety, declares this a perfect film for the present moment, ralating it to Donald Truimp. He says Trump used pro wrestling "to boost his own celebrity, and the "sport" parallels or symbolizes how Trump "could build his presidential aspirations on fakery" and yet "still be 'believed' by people who don’t care that he’s fooling them," the way the pro wrestling audience does. Perhaps the pro wresttling public is a dangerous cult, the way this family is, with menacing hints of a transformation in American society. This is a pessimistic moment. And though statistics show Christmas not to be the "suicide season" as people say, the bright lights can feel pretty dark sometimes.

The Iron Claw, 130 mins., premiered Nov. 8, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. Released by A24 in a number of other countries now and through April, 2023 (Ash Wed./Valentine's Day in France). It opens in US theaters Dec. 22, 2023.. Screened for this review Dec. 21 at Cinemark Century Hilltop 16, Richmond, CA. Metacritic rating: 74%. Released Jan. 25 in France it received an AlloCiné press rating of 4.0 (80%) and a spectator rating of 4.1 (82%). "It's the cinematic hit of early 2024!" a French article enthused.


NOTES ON A SCENE : a discussion among Sean Durkin, Zack Efron, Jeremy AllenWhite and Harris Dickinson about workout and fight sequences in The Iron Claw.


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